Putting our heads together safely

Putting our heads together safely

Two researchers approach concussions from different angles but share a goal: protecting athletes’ brains
January 23, 2013

The hype surrounding National Hockey League superstar Sidney Crosby and his prolonged struggle with the aftermath of a concussion has heightened awareness about the dangers of head injuries. This publicity has helped “highlight the long-term effects of concussions and has shown how little we really know,” says Peter Cripton, a researcher and biomechanics professor at The University of British Columbia.

Université de Montréal scientist Dave Ellemberg, a neuropsychologist in the Department of Kinesiology, agrees that there’s still much work to be done. “We are in the midst of a concussion crisis,” he says. “People still say, ‘Oh, it’s just a few stars,’ but there is evidence to show that the brain is damaged. We need to educate the public that concussions are serious.”

To that end, Ellemberg and his team are looking at exactly what happens inside the brain when it experiences a sports-related injury. Using brain imaging and testing equipment funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), they measure and examine the brain’s chemistry and connectivity. Ellemberg has found abnormalities that persist several months after a concussion. “We found that the neurons in the brains of asymptomatic athletes are not firing as quickly or efficiently. They may seem fine, but the brain is damaged compared against teammates who were never concussed.”

Concussion injuries mostly affect working memory — the brain function that allows us to process and store short-term information, and to read or calculate. The ability to pay attention and focus is also affected. Ellemberg found that a first concussion will result in neuropsychological deficits that can linger six months to a year after injury. “As a society, we promote physical activity,” he says. “Canadians love their hockey and will always love it. So, we have to make sure these sports are safe and understand the risks. We have to make the games safer.”

One way of doing this is by developing better safety equipment. That’s where the prototype sports helmet designed by Cripton and his team comes into play. The Pro-Neck-Tor™ prevents spinal injuries and concussions that occur as a result of head-first impact — for example, when a hockey player is checked from behind into the boards, which could break his or her neck. The double-shelled helmet has a mechanism that guides the head into “flection,” or movement along the impact surface, which decreases force in the neck during a head-first collision. “Doing this,” says Cripton, “could prevent the majority of spinal fractures that happen in this mode in hockey, football and mountain biking.”

The helmet can also decrease the potential of concussion by diminishing the speed at which the head moves in any direction. “We’ve tested the helmet in a number of impact scenarios and have seen that it reduces head acceleration,” says Cripton, who uses CFI-funded high-speed cameras and sensors to effectively gather data during testing. “It’s a real challenge with impact research to be able to collect the data fast enough so that we can tell what’s really happening.” This data is critical, because Cripton’s team is the only group trying to prevent neck injury specifically through the use of guided motion.

The Pro-Neck-Tor™ could become especially important for children and teens, who are just as vulnerable to concussions as adults, according to Ellemberg’s research. It was previously believed that children’s brains could better withstand concussions because of their increased plasticity. But he found that adolescent brains are actually the most at risk for injury, likely because they are in a stage of rapid development.

“The biggest problem is that athletes return to the game too soon and can suffer another injury,” says Ellemberg. “When kids go back to school and the game, there’s no surveillance or accommodations made to the fact they’ve suffered a concussion. They need a cognitive rest period where they can take a few days to get stronger. It’s like if you sprain your ankle but are expected to keep walking on it. It’s not going to heal well. But if you let it rest for a few days, it’s likely to recover more rapidly.”

Research continues to uncover what long-term effects concussions may have — for instance, in collaboration with colleagues at the UBC Brain Research Centre, Cripton is also investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease in individuals with a history of multiple concussions. Yet he emphasizes what is already commonly known: “If we can prevent or lower the severity of head impacts that occur this will have a positive effect for athletes, now and in the future.”